The Bond Servant
By Jack Kelley
Paul, a bond servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, and set apart to the gospel of God (Romans 1:1).
Most translations of Romans 1:1 use either slave or servant in defining Paul’s relationship with the Lord, but the phrase “bond servant” is actually the most accurate. In effect, a bond servant enters into the relationship voluntarily with the understanding that it’s a lifetime commitment, with no provision for release.
This type of relationship comes from Exodus 21:1-6. According to the Law, a man who couldn’t pay a debt he owed had to become the servant of his creditor in order to work off the debt, or until the next sabbath year, whichever was shorter. If, during the time of his temporary service, he concluded that his master was a good man to work for, he could voluntarily convert his term of service into a life long commitment. In doing so he was agreeing to permanently subordinate his own interests in favor of his master’s, to do whatever the master required. This bears repeating. It was the servant’s choice to enter into a bond servant relationship with his master, but once the agreement was made he could not choose to undo it later. It was a lifelong commitment.
If his master agreed, they would go before the judges to make the arrangement official, and then the master would drive an awl through his servant’s earlobe and into the door post of the house. This was to signify that the servant had become permanently “attached” to the master’s household. According to some traditions a golden ring was inserted through the hole in the bond servant’s ear to memorialize the event.
Because of the nature and permanence of the relationship, a bond servant frequently became a trusted member of his master’s household, eventually representing him in matters pertaining to his business or personal interests.
A Divine Example
David made reference to this kind of relationship, describing how the Messiah would see Himself in service to His Father.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:6-8).
The writer of Hebrews put these words in the Lord’s mouth in explaining His once for all sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:5-7). The phrase “my ears you have opened” is also translated “my ears you have pierced”, recalling how the master pierced the ear of the bond servant.
This is why Jesus said He could do nothing on his own but only what He saw his father doing (John 5:19) and that he did not speak on His own accord, but the Father commanded him what to say and how to say it (John 12:49). A bond servant subordinates his will to the will of his master.
In a similar description, Paul said that Jesus, who being God in His very nature, didn’t try to make Himself equal to God, but made Himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Phil 2:6-7). The Greek word for servant in this passage is “doulos”. It means “bond servant” and is the same word Paul used of Himself in Romans 1:1. These references stressed the voluntary nature of the Lord’s mission to die for the sins of the people.
What About Us?
So, a bond servant chose to enter into a life of service to his master, subordinating his will to his master’s, and knowing that he couldn’t change his mind and undo the arrangement later on. He was in for life.
The Greek word “doulos” appears in 112 verses of the New Testament, mostly in reference to our relationship with the Lord. It is usually translated “servant” but as we saw it literally means “bond servant.” I believe it can serve as a model for us to consider for ourselves.
We also had a debt we couldn’t pay and chose to enter into a life long relationship with the Lord in exchange for having the debt forgiven. It was our choice to do so but once we made the choice, we gave up the right to undo the arrangement later on. In effect, we put aside our own interests and agreed to dedicate our life to the pursuit of His interests.
This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). This verse has been widely misinterpreted as calling the believer to a life of deprivation and suffering. But in fact it is describing the bond servant relationship. As followers of Jesus we are to put our own hopes and dreams to death in favor of the Lord’s plans for us, making our interests subordinate to His.
Paul emphasized this same idea in Romans 12:1-2 telling us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is our true and proper worship (literally, our reasonable service). He said we should no longer conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Then we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
As believers, we are called to abandon the typical dreams for the future that society encourages and instead search for God’s will for our life.
When we became believers, God anointed us, set His seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our heart as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come (2 Cor. 1:21-22). That means we belong to Him now. We are no longer our own, but have been bought at a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and that price is the precious blood of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18-19). With it He wiped away all our debt, and in view of His mercy we are urged to offer our bodies to Him as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
Those who say that since we chose to become saved we can choose to walk away. They are applying human thinking to the equation, thinking it makes sense that it should work that way. But there is no Biblical support for that opinion. In fact, as we’ve seen, it’s not the case at all. As bond servants of the Lord we gave up our right to self determination when we surrendered our life to Him. This is what Paul meant by saying, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” When God set His mark of ownership on you He was claiming you as His property, the way a rancher would place his brand on the cattle he owned. Like the bond servant of Old Testament times, we belong to our Master and are not free to walk away.
Contained In The Old, Explained In The New
All Old Testament models are necessarily incomplete. After all, they were just shadows of the things that were to come (Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 10:1). In the bond servant model the arrangement was between two men; the master and the servant. What earthly master would agree to support a servant for life without requiring a comparable amount of service in return? This was a two sided arrangement with clear responsibilities for each party. In return for being supported all his life, the servant agreed to do whatever the master desired.
But when God agreed to pardon you for the enormous debt of sin you owed and claimed you a member of His household, He placed only one condition upon you in return. He said you must believe that when Jesus died on that cross, He died for your sins. That’s all He requires of you (John 6:28-29).
Our arrangement with God is not one that requires a prior commitment to certain levels of performance. We are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephes. 2:8-9). While the New Testament contains numerous admonitions to live our lives in a manner that’s pleasing to God, none of them have been imposed upon us as our part of the bargain. They are presented as things we can do to express our gratitude for what the Lord has unconditionally done for us. Our willingness to do these things is what Paul called “living up to what we have already attained” (Phil. 3:16). In other words, we don’t do them in the hope of qualifying for eternal life, but as our way of saying thanks because we already have it.
Certainly Paul and other New Testament writers put these admonitions in strong terms. They knew better than most what an incredible gift we’ve been given and what an enormous price God paid to give it to us. But they never said our salvation depends on us obeying their instructions, or that our failure to perform would result in our arrangement with the Lord being canceled.
On the contrary, doing these things will result in the accrual of additional blessings, in this life and the next one, above and beyond the pardon for our sins and the gift of eternal life that we’ve already received. So the base line of our relationship with the Lord, below which we cannot go, is forgiveness for our sins and eternal life with Him. Anything we do out of gratitude for that brings extra blessings.
How much more then should we be willing to put our self centered hopes for our life aside in favor of discovering God’s will for us? Knowing He came so we could have an abundant life (John 10:10), that He is not going to impose a heavy work load on us (Matt. 11:30), and that He will always be with us to direct and empower us in bearing much fruit (John 15:5), how can we lose?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).